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Smoking And Macular Degeneration: What You Need To Know

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Macular degeneration is a common problem that affects as many as 11 million people in the United States. The main cause of macular degeneration is the natural aging process, but doctors increasingly warn people that smoking can accelerate the onset of this vision disorder. Learn more about the symptoms of macular degeneration and how smoking can worsen the condition for you.

About macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in many parts of the world, including the United States. The condition occurs when a permanent blind spot appears directly in the line of sight in one or both eyes. Initially, sufferers find it difficult to read or see fine details, but, over time, the symptoms can worsen and vision loss may slowly occur.

People generally suffer from one of two types of the disease:

  • Dry macular degeneration occurs when fatty deposits build up under the cells in the retina.
  • Wet macular degeneration occurs when blood vessels under the retina break or leak. This condition is less common than dry macular degeneration and is generally more harmful to your vision.

Doctors are unable to cure AMD, but an early diagnosis can help halt the symptoms. A healthier lifestyle can curb the symptoms of the condition, but, conversely, certain habits (including smoking) can worsen the condition.

The risk that smoking presents

A 2004 study in the British Medical Journal found that smokers were four times more likely to develop AMD than other people. The British study concluded that smoking causes a quarter of all AMD cases that result in blindness or serious visual impairment. The research also shows that you can decrease the risk of AMD or make it more likely that you will respond well to treatment by giving up the habit.

Smoking damages the macula, which is the part of the retina that you use when you look directly at something or when you read. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can constrict the blood vessels in this part of the eye, and smokers can experience both wet and dry AMD.

One of the biggest problems with AMD is that doctors often do not spot the symptoms of the condition until patients are in their fifties or older. By this time, it's often more difficult to treat the condition. For example, doctors will sometimes suggest that sufferers have laser treatment to kill blood vessels before they reach and damage the macula. This treatment is often ineffective for smokers, as the symptoms recur due to ongoing exposure to the chemicals in cigarette smoke.

What happens when you quit smoking

The risk of AMD decreases when people give up smoking because the harmful chemical levels in the bloodstream go down, but doctors cannot reverse any symptoms of the condition. That aside, quitting smoking at any age remains one of the most controllable factors that doctors associate with AMD. Even if you give up smoking at a later age, you can still increase the time it takes for the symptoms of AMD to develop or worsen.

Other eye problems related to smoking

AMD is not the only vision problem that smokers may experience. Other conditions that smoking can cause include:

  • Cataracts, where the lens in the eye gradually starts to cloud. 
  • Uveitis is a serious inflammation of the eye's middle layer that can lead to vision loss. In some cases, the condition weakens vital structures in the eye and causes retinal detachment.
  • Diabetic retinopathy is a side effect of diabetes that damages blood vessels in the eye. Smoking significantly increases the risk of diabetes.
  • Graves' disease is a form of hyperthyroidism that can cause inflammation of the soft tissues surrounding the eyeball, and can sometimes lead to prominent, bulging eyes.

Smoking can cause many serious health problems, including severe optical health problems. Talk to your doctor for more advice about quitting the habit, and visit an eye care specialist regularly to check if you have any symptoms of AMD or other vision problems. Try visiting to contact an eye doctor.